Sometimes an artist creates a world so real and so full of heart that any rough edges around the production become inconsequential. Poet, musician, and actor Hanifah Walidah is such an artist, and the "Anyblock, USA" of her wonderful one-woman show Straight Black Folks' Guide to Gay Black Folks is such a world. On the block where Dee runs her childcare center and Louie grows his prize-winning roses, where Pastor Ebonise Preeds preaches the message of welcome and the Cheatem women sell fried fish while the Cheatem men play cards, there is an abundance of the kind of love and family feeling that whole television networks are created to try to capture.
"Family" has two meanings here, because most of the neighbors Walidah introduces us to are gay. The show's title, while flashy, is a little misleading -- it might be more accurate to call it Everyone's Guide to Treating Other People with Love, Decency, Common Sense, and Compassion, but that would be unwieldy. Gay black folks often get a double dose of grief when it comes to other people's attitudes. It's bad enough to be discriminated against by nonblacks; worse yet to be looked down upon by other blacks for being gay. So Walidah wrote a show that is warm, funny, and positive without being saccharine. Her characters are smart, sassy, and multidimensional, her embodiment of them engaging. Her chops as a spoken word and hip-hop innovator on the Nuyorican scene serve her well on the stage of Oakland's Black Box.
An otherwise stellar one-performer show can go down in flames if the performer's delivery is too fast or too slow. Walidah's is impeccable. It's evident from the first scene, when Dee is talking to the children in her care ("Who has not paid their toll to the dreamland troll yet?"). Over the course of the show, her characters talk to one another, a congregation, dead relatives, and God. And in each case Walidah forges a tangible relationship between the characters we see and the ones we don't through her timing and her spot-on reactions.
The second scene explores the roles men play as Walidah introduces four men of the Cheatem clan playing cards and holding forth on what a man should do and be. Nobody's sure how old Top Pop is, least of all himself; he claims to remember working on a plantation and living in Africa before that. Although Walidah is a young woman, she captures Top Pop's wrinkles and scratchy voice without makeup tricks or latex. Gentle Top Pop has seen it all, and believes "there's nothing wrong with a man crying. Otherwise you get constipated." In contrast, serious young Brother Kwan has just joined the Fruit of Islam and thinks black homosexuality is a result of too much contact with white people; his idea of what a black man should be includes responsibility and righteousness but otherwise could use some loosening up. Social worker Cuzin' Puddin' isn't letting up on Brother Kwan ("This ain't O Magazine. Me and my man are not up in the lifestyle section," he snaps in response to the suggestion that his gayness is a matter of choice), and he lays it down when he says, "I see guys trying to be a black man from every direction but in here," and touches his chest.
The preaching is more obvious and just as welcome in the final scene of the first act, where we meet the charismatic pastor Ebonise Preeds. Pastor Preeds gives a moving sermon about human potential and self-acceptance ("reflect on who you were before there was everyone else"), but we later learn that she has her own challenges when it comes to her son Louie, who shows up for a quietly heartrending turn in the second act.
There are some weak spots. While the musical interludes were generally well-chosen, the music that ends "Louie's Roses" comes on far too quickly and is too loud for a piece that ends so softly. The slide projections were nice but washed out. But the most awkward moment comes at the end, when the lovely and mysterious Ms. Invincible arrives to check in with her celestial supervisor. There's more to Ms. Invincible than meets the eye, and a lot meets the eye -- feather boa, snakeskin boots, and a glittery skirt that comes to here. She's a great character, and it's refreshing to think that God's messengers are transgendered, but something never quite jells. Although Walidah uses Ms. Invincible to wrap up some loose ends, the play would end on a stronger note if it ended with the Pastor Preeds scene.
Technically, Straight Folks' Guide isn't a Christmas show, but it might as well be, if by that we mean inspiring, faith-based, and joyful. Straight Folks' Guide is sincere, loving, and often totally uproarious. You won't soon visit a better neighborhood, or meet better neighbors.
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